Have we passed ‘Peak Specialization’ ?


Over the past few months something about the current structure of our society has disturbed me. I’m a deep ponderer not a quick thinker and I’m not sure if I’ve yet got to the root of what is disturbing me or whether I need to take a fresh perspective. Are my concerns valid? The benefit of blog is that I can float my ideas and take listen to the feedback.

So what is disturbing me? I think that we are seeing too much specialization in the skill sets / job roles within our current society. The trigger for this was to compare the job roles I held up until 2017 verses today.

Consider these juxtapositions:

(a) A professional person with a desk based role, using part of their high salary to pay for an expensive gym membership so that can get the exercise their body needs after work. vs. (b) Someone who has physical work integrated within their job, who when they finish work, they do so fit without need for the gym, having more time with their family.

(a) A similar professional person who deals with the mental stress of working within a top down driven silo like existence who lives and earns to be able to go on their next holiday. (b) Someone whose job role is their vocation so the satisfaction of what they do work something they actively want to do, who can blur work and free time to their benefit and enjoys but does not ‘need’ holiday down time.

The human body and mind has certain core needs (link). These have been summarised in the form of the following connections

  1. Exercise / The Natural World
  2. Status & Respect
  3. People & Community
  4. Hope for the future
  5. Good values

It seems clear to me that the over-specialization of job roles has a strong tendency to weaken a number of the above connections rather than strengthen them. We are noticing a rise in mental illness. Between 2003-2014 the prevalence of common mental health issues in the UK rose by 20%. Additionally, the prescription of anti-depressants has doubled over the past ten years. Is there a link?

For an employer, increased specialization gives higher productivity and this improves revenue, and in a well managed firm profit. So is the rise in specialization simply the fuel desired by those who seek to sell more and higher margin products back to society for financial gain? Is it good for the individual, for the family or society as a whole or simply for those at the top of large corporations (of those who profit on the trading of their shares)?

I am not suggesting that we have left behind a golden period when everything was better than today. One can clearly see the benefits of how we have specialised since we moved away from subsistence living. Healthcare, culture and the arts, travel and free time have all given us an enhancement in our lives today vs. say 1000 years ago. What I want to ask is: Have we passed our peak?

What if something happened to cause societal collapse? How many of us would be able to cook from raw ingredients? Who would be able to start a fire or know how to best source clean water from the wild? Who would be able to repair their own clothes, house, bike, car etc. And how many people would be stuck without being able to seek the advice of Siri or Alexa?

We all have a basic set of needs: Clean air, water, food, shelter, security, good health, sleep, clothing, companionship and the option to reproduce. And beyond that we have a reasonable set of desires; Friendship, community, friendship, comfort, expression and appreciation of creativity (music and the arts), freedom for personal growth and the like. But do we need a trophy car, the latest mobile technology, a television larger than our bookshelf, sculpted eyebrows, this years trainers, all examples of the fruits of a growth driven, technology enabled, specialist made and target advertised economy? Or would we be better off with connections which we fracture to achieve these material goals?

Reconnecting with life, reconnecting with happiness.

There is a lot of focus on mental health in the media at the moment, with people openly asking the question – “Why are the incidence of depression and anxiety rising so rapidly in the Western World?”

My aim in this post is to take Johann Hari’s 255 page “Lost Connections” book and distil a summary from this. Let’s start by outlining his list of connections:

Connections to:

  1. Meaningful work
  2. People and community
  3. Good values
  4. Status and respect
  5. The Natural World
  6. Hope for the future

If you consider the above list you quickly see that the direction that society is taking is reducing many peoples connections to a number of, of even all, of these areas. I have already found my way to items one, three, four and five. Lets unpack, rather more briefly than Hari, the above list, because if you can define the challenge you can look to work on solutions.

Meaningful work

A recent study suggested that only around 1/3 of the UK population enjoy the job which they do. That’s appalling! A key issue here is your extent of autonomy. Whilst autonomy might often rise with seniority that is far from always being the case.  There is a key difference between being told what to do and being told how to do it. Having someone prescribe the ‘how’ is a big problem, or at least it was for me. If you have staff reporting to you, trust them to know what they are doing. Depending on the role they may need different levels of direction, from broad-brush to specific. But within the needs of safety and quality allow them to do it their way. Not only is this better for mental health of the individual, if you are not using the thoughts and initiative of your employees you are missing out on a lot which they have to offer. If you want an automaton, buy a robot.

People & community

As a society we are becoming more individualistic. This is not a new phenomenon, you can see the roots of this in the thinking of the Renaissance, the replacement of monarchy by democracy and the birth of the Anglican and Non-conformist church. It’s not new. One of the key reasons why humans have flourished to a greater extent than other mammals is our ability to co-operate and work together. We have always worked best as a group or tribe, not as selfish disconnected individuals. Hari quotes an interesting study which shows that people who seek to promote the happiness of their community experience greater personal happiness than those who just seek their own fulfilment. Face to face interactions with friends are important too. Better to have 2-3 face to face relationships than several hundred connections via social media. By all means have both, but don’t – he mutes – allow the latter to overwhelm the former. Spend more time looking into the eyes of a friend than at a little screen in your hand.

Good Values

Depending on your cultural and faith background your view of good values may vary. But I’d suggest we could all agree on a list of junk values : consumerism, celebrity-worship, on-line curated popularity (i.e. having the perfect Instagram image), fast-fashion. What would you add to this list? That is a question I am meditating upon. What so many of these junk-values have in common is that their true role is to serve others and not us (or our community). We are becoming increasingly aware that these junk values are not just at our expense but are also at the expense of the planet and thus future generations.

Status & respect

Here Hari highlights that the happiness in countries where the gap between the richest and the poorest is smaller, happiness is greater. Read his book to know more. This one is a challenge, because as individuals most of us cannot influence these factors. However we can learn to be content with what we have and we can be more respectful of others. Also we could choose cast our vote for a leadership that shows preference to the poor rather than just the rich. Your view on who that is may vary.

The Natural World

There is mounting evidence that exercise and time outside is good for all aspects of our health. In addition it gives us a sense of perspective. It puts our challenges in their place and causes us to be less inward looking. If you’ve read much of this blog you’ll see how much I love the outdoors and spending ten months working on a sheep farm was instrumental in my recovery from burn out. Having a faith also helps with perspective, if you understand your position relative to your God that allows you to see things more realistically.  That the good in your life is bigger than your thought and the bad less significant than you give it credit for when you feel down. Even if faith is not your thing, ‘counting your blessings’ has been shown by the work of Dr Laurie Santos at Yale University to be highly beneficial to your well-being. Her interview on Radio Four is well worth a listen.

Hope for the future

Have plans, have dreams, think beyond tomorrow. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Increasingly we are being seen as part of a machine to keep the economy growing year on year. Stop conforming to the goals of the large corporations and set your own goals, challenging ones, and work towards them. But make those goals intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Do things which you love in their own right, not because of what they could lead to. I walk because I love the wild, not because it keeps me fit. I work for the satisfaction not simply for the money. I brew because I love the creative challenge, not because I want cheap beer.

I spent 13 years in school and seven years at University and was never taught any of the above. It’s time that messages such as the above were more widely known. Certainly they are concepts I plan to pass onto Junior. What has reading this summary made you think? I’d love to know.


2012 UK rainfall data – a wake up call to those in Government

You could look at 2012 and smile when you think back to the hosepipe bans at the start of the year, and then the tension as we wait now to find out whether it was the wettest year on record or not – in the end it has gained the No. 2 slot.  It’s good sport to smile at the water authorities – but look closer at the data and I think the message is rather different.

Four of the five wettest years on record have been in the last 10 years – something is clearly happening to our climate.  This makes me reflect on a book I have recently finished, “Why the West Rules, for now…” by US Historian Ian Morris.  I would need to read more widely to hear different views on the ‘patterns of history’ to truely put his thesis into context  but a couple of things struck me.  (1) The world has in the past often hit ceilings of development, which it has taken a breakthrough to pass – the most recent being the limit we could pass thanks to harnessing the power of coal in the industrial revolution   (2) One of the ‘5 reasons’ common behind the fall of empires has been climate change.

That the climate is changing now – at very least in it’s stability / the presence of more ‘extreme’ and less humdrum weather – is not a new thing.  My school education in history was poor verging on pointless, but life has shown me the value of understanding events of the past to better understand and manage events of the present. If (as an individual or as a society) we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are destined to repeat those mistakes.  Are we about to hit another ceiling?  If we do it is likely to cause our ‘social development’ to fall back dramatically for a a few 10’s-100’s years. (or so history suggests – we don’t just bump along such ceilings, we tend to rebound backwards to a lower state of development caused by the challenge that sustains the ceiling)

History shows us that a change in world climate is a significant matter – it is not just a matter or buying a new raincoat and choosing to holiday in different destinations to those we went to in the past, it is a whole lot more significant than that.  The ability of certain countries to grow their traditional crops will change.  Places which were good for agriculture will shift from one country or continent to another – and with the shift in food production we are likely to see a shift in population – migration.  Again history shows us that significant levels of migration are another of the  ‘5 reasons’ common behind the fall of empires.

When we see (and in Lancashire really feel!) the rainfall data it should be telling us and our politicians that we need to adapt the way we live and the way we organise ourselves if in the next 50-100 years we are not to ‘fail’ as a nation (let us not forget the impact on the developing world too – but that’s a topic for another post).  Ian Morris suggest that what is needed is organisation on a pan-country basis – this seems reasonable, as the issues of CO2 emissions – for example – cannot be dealt with by one country or continent alone.

So, UK Government – what are you doing to – 

Smooth out the weird weather by better capturing the excess rainfall of the wet season for distribution and use in the dry periods?

Encourage people to become less dependent on unnecessary travel – why do so many people drive for an hour to get to work, rather than live where they work, or (in our increasingly interconnected world) work from home?

… as but two examples?

But remember that as individuals we all have responsibilities too – 

Could you install a water butt (or two) to make better use of rain water?

Could you cycle to work rather than drive?

Could a small car take the place of your 4×4 status symbol?

Could you turn your thermostat down from 20 to 18 Celcius

Could you eat one non-meat meal a week?


I’m not a fan of the EU – but it seems that pan-national organisations are going to be needed.  I wonder, could they spend more time preparing Europe for changes in climate / society and less time measuring and then defining the maximum arc allowed in the shape of imported banana’s or paying subsidies for southern European farmers to claim set aside on car parks?